Village Theatre is alive again. Costumes slide across the wardrobe racks, welding sparks fly around set pieces under construction and actors’ voices resonate from the stage.
The Issaquah-based theater has opened its doors to young people this summer with KIDSTAGE, a program to introduce youth to theater.
“These kids are bringing life back to the theater to these spaces that have just been empty,” said Frank Stilwagner, director of advancement at Village Theatre.
“It was 14 months after we shut down that we were finally able to get in and strike sets that had just been sitting there and the costumes that were in the dressing rooms. They were all just still there 14 months later. So now everything coming back to life, it’s just exciting.”
But everything isn’t coming back just yet.
After more than a year of dark stages, Washington state’s steady approach toward its goal of vaccinating 70% of people 16 and older and Gov. Jay Inslee’s announcement that the whole state would reopen completely by June 30 lent confidence to theaters and performing arts groups that their stages would return to life soon.
But, with the exception of a few — mostly outdoor — productions this summer, for most theaters, reopening on June 30, or even soon after, isn’t realistic.
While 22% of cultural organizations in the central Puget Sound region had already reopened by last winter, only 7% said they felt they could resume in-person programming by spring or summer this year, according to an ArtsFund survey released in March. Thirty-five percent projected not resuming in-person programming until the fall.
As most of the theater leaders interviewed for this story said, “you can’t just flip a switch” and bring back theater. For starters, it takes several months to rehearse, build sets and produce a play. But the pandemic has created many other issues to consider as well.
Money, for one. The entire arts and entertainment industry is hurting financially. A year of shutdown and canceled performances means theaters haven’t been able to bring in their usual income from ticket sales and subscriptions.
On top of that, most have endured layoffs.
“We anticipate ‘staffing up’ to meet reopening capacity will be key to reopening arts and cultural organizations,” said Michael Greer, ArtsFund president and CEO, in an email. “All the while, a 65% decrease in earned income is projected for 2020/2021, as compared to pre-pandemic. This underscores the necessity for supporting the sector.”
There are also health and safety protocols to consider, audience comfort with those protocols, backup plans if things shut down again and the question of what to do about all those shows that got canceled a year ago.
And after enduring a challenging year that for many arts professionals has meant financial hardship and unemployment, there’s also the personal and mental health impacts of the shutdown to consider.
In recent weeks, most local theaters have been announcing seasons that won’t start until the fall (like Intiman Theatre in September and ArtsWest in November) or 2022 (like the 5th Avenue Theatre and Village Theatre, both in January, and Seattle Rep, which is remodeling and planning to reopen next year). It’s worth noting that many theaters, as well as other performing arts organizations like Seattle Symphony, Seattle Opera and Pacific Northwest Ballet, typically don’t start their seasons until closer to fall anyway. But the pandemic has added even more complications to the months of work it takes to create a theatrical season. And theater leaders are being cautious.
“We have planned what feels like 14 different seasons since the pandemic began, and done none of them. It’s amazing how many we’ve planned and then had to go, ‘Nope, that’s not real,’” said Bill Berry, the 5th Avenue Theatre’s producing artistic director.
“I think that takes us into reopening next year and just trying to be really careful and as certain as we can be about what we’re saying we can do, and then actually being able to do it. I think our staff needs that, our patrons need that. We just need to know whatever we start to announce, we’re really going to be able to deliver this time.”
Still, there’s hope enough that local theaters are beginning slowly and steadily to wake back up.
Are audiences ready to return?
With approximately 200 performances scheduled before December, Seattle Theatre Group, which runs the Neptune, Moore and Paramount theaters, has come running out of the gate. Neptune Theatre, STG’s smallest venue, will start holding full-capacity performances — mainly concerts featuring local musicians — in July.
“Our decision to reopen was largely rooted in our ongoing optimism that health is improving,” said Josh LaBelle, STG’s executive director. “The responsibility to our local artist community weighed heavily on us in this decision, too. The sooner we could safely serve them as well and get them on our stages, the better off they’re going to be.”
The challenges for STG come in the form of rehiring staff, meeting actors’ safety requirements and gauging audiences’ readiness to return to full-capacity indoor performances.
STG is currently in a 45-day period of trying to hire for 30-35 positions.
“Getting out of the gate a little early is helpful for that,” said LaBelle. “Those who want to work in the arts are looking around and paying attention and I don’t know how many organizations are hiring or rehiring right now. If there is limited supply, we’re at least out there trying to provide.”
Staff may be ready to come back, but are audiences?
LaBelle says this is one of the critical questions STG is facing right now.
As a nonproducing theater that mainly hosts touring productions and concerts, STG is able to open up and feature music performances much more quickly than venues that produce their own creative works and primarily do theater. Still, it’s uncertain if audiences are going to be ready as quickly as STG is.
While the first concerts in July will be at full capacity, STG will also be keeping some health and safety protocols, such as requiring proof of vaccination or negative coronavirus test, face coverings, and providing a separate seating area for unvaccinated audience members.
LaBelle says ticket sales for the July concerts have been up and down, but overall pretty good. As for theater performances, STG will have to wait until fall, when national tours of Broadway shows make their way here. The marquee Broadway at the Paramount series kicks off Oct. 5 with “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
In the meantime, producing theaters are watching the Neptune reopening closely to assess audience readiness as they prepare for their own reopenings.
Although its KIDSTAGE program is in full force right now (with rehearsals and planned performances, along with masks, social distancing and a plan to film the productions in case in-person audiences aren’t an option this summer), Village Theatre is keeping an eye on STG’s opening and hoping that bodes well for Village’s own return early next year — a time frame decided upon before Inslee had announced the state’s June 30 reopening date.
Although some theaters in the region have received government funding in the forms of Paycheck Protection Program loans and Shuttered Venue Operators Grants, if audiences don’t show up and fill seats once they’ve reopened, producing theaters like Village could have a difficult time recovering the costs of the productions they put on.
“I think we’ll learn a lot about audience behavior from summer,” said Robb Hunt, Village Theatre’s executive producer.
To be safe and to make sure they’ll have enough money for payroll, Village has cut back, shortening the overall runs of its early 2022 shows from the usual six or seven weeks down to five weeks.
While Village is already bringing back some staff part time, the theater doesn’t expect to be back to full strength until the following season, starting in August 2022.
Small theater vs. big theater
For the small, all-women-run Macha Theatre Works, growth actually happened during the pandemic. Consistently producing 17 virtual, 17-minute shows throughout the pandemic, Seattle-based Macha’s audience and ticket sales grew.
If everything keeps going the way it’s going, artistic director Amy Poisson says, Macha will be able to do in-person holiday shows. For Macha, the financial considerations aren’t quite as big as they are for a larger theater. Since they don’t have a building, they don’t have to worry about rent. And since they’re smaller, it doesn’t cost them as much money to fill seats for their performances.
“It’s much harder to turn a big ship,” said Poisson. “We’re a small nimble ship.”
Seeing how much easier it was to navigate the pandemic in that “small ship,” Poisson has new resolve to keep Macha small.
“It’s so much easier when you’re small,” she said. “You can stay focused on the art.”
On the other end of the theater scale is the 5th Avenue Theatre, which mainly produces big musicals that often require dozens of people onstage and backstage and hundreds of costume changes. When the 5th Ave’s leaders began thinking about what reopening might look like, they had to consider what safety protocols actors and stagehand unions are requiring to keep their union members safe on the job.
The additional fact that public health experts have pointed to droplets in the air from singing as creating a particularly dangerous atmosphere for spreading COVID-19 means musical theater creators have to be particularly careful about their health and safety protocols.
Between big casts and the need for beefed-up safety protocols, a big (2,000-plus seats), musical-producing theater like the 5th needs big money to reopen and stay open. Luckily for them, their first-ever virtual gala last month raised over $1.2 million from theater lovers and donors. That’s more than the previous year’s in-person gala, which raised $1 million, and a lot more than previous years, when they usually raised around $600,000.
The support, says the 5th Ave’s Berry, is a sign of what he thinks will be a renaissance for theater coming out of the pandemic. For the 5th Ave, that means rethinking the shows they want on their stages. Some of the shows that were canceled due to the pandemic might not be coming back.
“The world we’re in today is so not the world we were in when those shows were planned,” said Berry. “I love some of those projects, but are they still the shows we want to see on our stage right now? We shouldn’t ignore that we’ve also had a giant awakening around social justice issues in this country so some of the work that we thought made sense three years ago, I’m not sure it does anymore.”
Coming back better
Some theaters endured the pandemic shutdown by focusing their energies on making sure that when theater came back, it would come back better.
One of the few theaters that did not produce much virtual content during the height of the pandemic, midsize Seattle-based theater ArtsWest focused its energy instead on rethinking the kind of theater it wants to produce and the kind of theater it wants to be.
The company recently announced its first season to be created by a collective of ArtsWest associate artists — in order to include a broader array of voices — in collaboration with ArtsWest leadership. The season will be presented with in-person, socially distanced and online options. The changes and the season itself, organized around the theme, “When We Wake,” were inspired by the events of the past year. Not just the pandemic, but also the country’s social justice reckoning, said Mathew Wright, ArtsWest artistic director.
“The endgame is healing. The associate artist group had the notion early on that a lot of healing was going to be necessary coming out of a very troubled time,” said Wright. “There needs to be a coming together and a taking care of each other. The societies and institutions that were created for people who, frankly, look like me? People are starting to realize that cannot be the case anymore. That whole system needs to be dismantled. That’s the responsibility that we felt. How do we touch on that stuff and keep that energy going?”
For the Seattle-based Central District Forum for Arts & Ideas (CD Forum), which hosts community events as well as theater and other performances, the answer to that question is easy: focus on community.
With children under 12 still not eligible for vaccination and with health and safety protocols rendering some of the spaces in its older building less accessible, CD Forum isn’t ready to reopen until they feel they can serve as much of the community as possible — probably sometime in 2022, said Sharon Nyree Williams, executive director.
That means working with a consultant to make their space more accessible, marketing some events by word-of-mouth only to keep audiences within the community, and taking reopening slowly out of respect for what Williams says will be the fragility of people’s mental health coming out of this difficult time.
“We’re going from a state of lockdown to being open and everybody’s not going to be free and open to that,” said Williams. “It’s going to be a journey for people to even come back, it’s not going to be snap your fingers and ready to go back.”